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Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Saratoga Wood-Burner No. 4, made by Warren, Swetland & Little in Crescent, NY, 1853

A couple of days ago Scott Price passed on to me a query from Tom Mithen, of the Halfmoon Historical Society, in Saratoga County, upstate New York.  They had been given a nice old parlor stove made at a foundry in nearby Crescent, and they wanted to know more about it.  After a little bit of work I was able to identify its designer, and to place it in its context.  I will share the results of that work here.

First, the stove itself:

This is a pretty typical wood-burning parlor stove of its time, of the kind known as an "airtight" -- a development of the old six-plate box stove, but enlarged and turned into an attractive as well as functional piece of furniture for the mid-Victorian parlor.  Its style is Carpenter Gothic, very fashionable at the time.  This front view of the stove shows the circular air control in the hearth plate and a removable round lid in the top, which could be used either for adding fuel or for setting a kettle to boil water for a hot drink, or a saucepan to warm up a dinner.  

The stove is 31" wide and 25" deep (measuring to the outer edge of the hearth plate, not the fire box), i.e. it has a footprint of 5.4 square feet.  The mean footprint of a sample of twenty other parlor stoves of the same type and period that I have collated -- not necessarily representative, simply those in museum collections, and with dimensions supplied -- was 4.4 square feet, i.e. this stove is quite large, as befits a Number 4 (other local makers supplied parlor stoves in at least three sizes, usually 1-3 or 3-5, so a 4 was fairly big -- implying a 24" firebox, where a tiny No. 1, perhaps for a bedroom, had a firebox just 16" long and a big 6 was 32").  But it's partly because of the projection in front for the draft control, underneath which, certainly in a coal-burning version, would have covered an ash-pit from which the ash could be shovelled out by removing the square hatch in which the draft register is set.  Without it, or with the ash-pit under the door in the side, the stove's footprint would have been at least 10 percent smaller, perhaps more.  I cannot tell from the pictures whether there is an ash-pit in this wood-burning stove too, but my guess is "probably" -- otherwise, why have a detachable piece of the front hearth?  

The stove's height, on the other hand, is below average -- 31", floor to top, vs 38".  This is simply because the stove lacks the decorative urn which would have sat on top of the lid, and which can be seen in the patent drawing below.  Urns often get separated from their stoves, because they are collectable in their own right, and might be kept as decorative objects when the stove they belonged to wore out or was disposed of.  Stove lids often broke, too, because they were taken off and on repeatedly, and were quite thin; or they simply warped because of overheating, and had to be replaced because they were no longer airtight.  The lid on the stove now is probably a re-cast -- it matches the original design, so the worn, broken, or warped original would have served as a pattern for its replacement -- with a small cast-in lifter slot of a kind not invented by the early 1850s.  The lifter tool, too, is much later, with its insulating wire handle grip. 

This view of the right-hand side shows the main fuel-feed door, carefully integrated into the design, i.e. the whole Gothic doorway down as far as the first "glazing bar" is hinged and opens out.

This top view shows the elaborate pattern of the top plate, and the air vent half-open.  The reason this stove type was called an "airtight" is because its plates were so precisely fitted that it did not leak at the seams like an old six-plate.  This meant that the user could control the draft, and thus the fuel consumption and heat output, simply by rotating the air vent and moving the damper in the chimney between its Open and Almost Closed positions.  Compare the replacement lid with the original one shown on the patent drawing, below.  

The quality of the design and casting is revealed even better in a detailed photograph of just one half of the top:

The back of the stove contains a cast collar to which the flue pipe would have been connected:

Given that the stove would probably have been set into a fireplace opening, or quite close to a wall, why make the back almost as decorative as the front, as it would hardly be visible most of the time?  Partly for "floor appeal" in the stove dealer's showroom, where customers could walk all around the goods they were considering buying; partly because Victorian stove designers decorated everythingout of habit and as a way of encouraging the molders not to skimp on quality and finish -- even the castings of hot-air furnaces destined to be hidden away in dark, dirty basements, and never seen except by the servants who had to refuel them, manage them, and clean them out; partly because it was actually more difficult to make a plain casting than one whose surface decoration could disguise minor flaws; but also because it was easier and cheaper to re-use the pattern for the front, with only minor modifications, than to make an entirely new one.

The stove carried its own and its makers' names as part of its permanent decoration, together with their legally required patent claim which was supposed to protect the value of their investment in such an elaborate and attractive pattern, and prevent or at least dissuade copying.  Giving stoves names (the number, in this case 4, denoted the stove's size -- it would have been available in a range of sizes to suit different purchasers and their needs) served a useful as well as a marketing purpose.  It meant that if a casting cracked -- not unusual given cast iron's fragility, the repeated cycles of heating and cooling to which it was subjected, stove founders' success in reducing the thickness, weight, and therefore cost of their castings between the 1830s and 1850s, and the fact that stoves might travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to market, or be transported by their buyers from one house to another -- then the owner (not necessarily the original purchaser) would know where to write to for a spare part, and could be reasonably confident of getting the right one back ("Please send me a new feed door for an 1853 Saratoga Wood-Burner No. 4").

Finally, a couple more details of the design:

This is one of the principal motifs on the stove's main plates.  I am not 100 percent sure, but I think it is probably a phoenix rising from the flames -- quite a common stove ornament.  The sharpness and clarity of the casting of this 165 year-old stove are quite impressive.  American stove founders had only developed the techniques and the skilled labor force to mass-produce work of this quality within the 10-15 years before this stove was designed and built.

And, really finally, the legs.  Why make anything plain when you can make it fancy instead?  This leg looks like another heraldic or imaginary animal -- rather reptilian.

* * * 

This stove's design and wood and iron patterns were the work of a man who went on to become the finest, most prolific, and most influential creative artisan in the stove trade, not just in Troy, New York, about nine miles away from Crescent, but in the whole United States -- Nicholas Schwarz Vedder (b. 1820), the "prince of stove designers" in the admiring words of one of his apprentices, J.L. Gobeille, looking back from 1886, shortly after Vedder's death -- together with William L. Sanderson, one of the other craftsmen in his workshop.  Vedder was a patentee on at least 255 stove designs and improvements, 1851-1880, far more than any other man -- in fact, his 243 stove design patents represented one sixth of the entire U.S. total during the years he was active.

Sanderson had already patented seven stoves in his own sole name, 1848-1851, five of them parlor stoves, two of the patents having been witnessed by Vedder, who was probably therefore a friend or colleague, before they began to collaborate in a partnership that produced another dozen stoves before 1860.  Sanderson's independent designs were competent and conventional -- arabesques, scrolls, leaves, fruits, and flowers, and repetitive geometrical forms; what Vedder added was his command of the Gothic and other figurative styles.  This was only the third stove patent that bore his name -- up until 1851 he had just been a pattern marker, or "carver" as he described himself to the Census, contributing without attribution to other men's work.  (His previous efforts were a cooking stove, the "Fashion of Troy," and another Gothic parlor heater, the "Severe Air Tight," executed jointly with Ezra Ripley, Troy's leading stove designer before Vedder.)

Even in the poor quality reproductions available online from the US Patent and Trademark Office (the originals would have been beautifully executed, at about half scale, on parchment) we can see that this both is and isn't the stove in the photographs.  This was its taller, thinner twin, the coal-burning model -- a square column, because it did not need to be rectangular in order to accommodate decent lengths of stove wood (c. 2 feet), but it did need height so that it could be charged with anthracite through the lid on the top and allowed to burn down slowly.  Figure A is the top, B is the hearth plate, and C is a side (showing its cross-section about half-way up), two Gothic windows high rather than the wood stove's one (there is no tracery in the upper windows, though there probably was in the pattern and the stove itself -- stove designers often left out details that merely repeated what was fully represented elsewhere on the drawing, to save time and money; either that, or the upper windows really were windows, filled with heat-proof mica sheet).  D and E are the two pieces of the circular draft control in the hearth.  F is the hollow decorative urn that would have sat on top of the cover and been filled with perfumed water to humidify the room and offset foul smells, including those from an overheated stove and perhaps the tobacco-spit covering its surface, if outdoor manners ever penetrated the parlor where it sat.  G is the cover itself -- shown in plan and cross-section (note the lack of a lifter socket).  H is a leg.  Vedder and Sanderson did not go into much detail describing their design -- the drawing was enough.  It was simply "Gothic Window and door arches ... and niches ... and arabesque ornaments mouldings &c disposed on the various parts of the stove as represented."

What is going on here?  Warren, Swetland and Little would have either commissioned this design from Vedder and Sanderson or simply visited their workshop, liked the look of this piece of work, and then bought it, turning them into the "assignees" of the patentees with all of the legal rights of the original owners.  They would then have got either Vedder and Sanderson or, less probably, a local pattern maker to take this design and modify it -- shrinking the height, stretching the width -- to make it suit a wood-burner.  There is no separate 1853 patent for a wood-burning variant -- Vedder only patented two designs in 1853, both of them cook stoves -- so I assume that Warren and partners were simply stretching their patent rights about as much as they had stretched Vedder's original design.  Ripley & Vedder's "Severe Air Tight" shows us what the drawing for the Saratoga Wood-Burner might have looked like, including the missing urn.  Who knows, Warren and partners might even have seen this in Vedder's workshop or Low & Hicks's showroom and said "Make us one like that, but just different enough that Ripley can't complain."

* * *

How much might such a stove have cost?  Stovemakers were very reticent about publishing their prices at the time, partly because they varied with the season of the year, the state of the market, and the fluctuating price of pig iron, one of their principal costs, so even when they left a space in their catalogues for a price to be inserted, and printed a $ sign, the number was left out, to be written in in ink or pencil later (see below).  This meant that their catalogues -- expensive printing jobs, full of engravings -- could serve for one or, with pasted-in additions, a couple of seasons.  But it was also because this was before the general adoption of the "one-price system" of retailing.  Prices varied from one customer to another, depending on whether s/he was a new one to be attracted or an old one to be held, somebody capable of paying in cash, or requiring credit, or even paying in kind -- bartering old iron and farm products, for example, for a new stove.  

However, I do have 1850 parlor stove prices from a leading Mohawk Valley producer (John S. & Merritt Peckham of Utica), and their top-of the-range patent Air-Tight Parlor Stove cost $4-50 or $5-25, depending on size, inconveniently left unstated.  The cheaper Union Air-Tight, with urn, which looked very like the Saratoga, cost between $2-80 for a 17" No. 2 and $4-20 for a 24" No. 4 (which the Peckhams called an A, B, or C-size -- the stove trade was not big on standardization). 

How were these prices determined?  By taking the weight (from 80 pounds for a No. 2 to 180 pounds for a No. 4 Union, for example) and multiplying by 3½ cents a pound. I am not sure whether these were wholesale or retail prices, but I suspect the former, and they would also have been what stove men called "long" prices, i.e. before discounts. Business customers received discounts for the same kinds of reasons retail customers did (length and character of the relationship, size of order, cash or credit, etc.) and others too, notably how desperate the seller was for cash flow regardless of the impact on profit.
Bearing in mind all of these caveats, at least we have some ball-park figures for parlor stove retail prices, say at least $5-6 for a No. 4.

The final question to answer is "how much is that worth?" If we allow for the increase in the average income (in current money terms) for a blue-collar production worker between 1852 and 2016, we come up with figures of $2,400-$2,900, i.e. supposing that such an imaginary person wished to buy a Saratoga No. 4 in 1852, it would have struck him as a similar sort of big-ticket consumer-durable purchase to something costing his modern counterpart up to $3,000 -- the installation of a relatively inexpensive central air-conditioning system, or a nice 5-burner gas range with an oven, for example. These numbers and comparisons are inexact, but they are at least suggestive.  

* * *

So much for the stove.  What about its makers?  Crescent was a small town of about 500 people on the north bank of the Mohawk River, and at the north end of the viaduct carrying the Erie Canal across it.  It was a canal loading-point for grain, bricks, and molding sand, the locality's commodity exports.  Its location made it a good site for further commercial development, and in  the early 1840s one entrepreneur, Alfred Noxon, established "a foundry, paint-works, a block of stores, and a hotel employing at times from seventy to one hundred men."    

How the foundry passed under the control George Warren, Silas H. Swetland, and Ezekiel C. Little I do not know.  Warren had been in the stove trade with a different partner, the foundryman Job Viall, at Mechanicville, a Saratoga County town about the same size as Crescent, on the banks of the Hudson River about seven miles away, between 1845 and 1852, so we can assume that that was when this new partnership was formed, and they bought their fancy parlor stove patterns to get the business off to a flying start; Swetland was a local businessman, perhaps an attorney, and landowner; Little seems to have left no trace.  

Warren brought relevant experience to the new partnership, and probably an established product line.  In 1847, he and Viall had bought their first patent assignment, a very ornamental airtight parlor stove, from Jeremiah D. Green, of Troy (see below).  In 1850, he and Green patented a cooking stove together [picture not worth including here].  So when the trio bought their first pattern, at least one of them had connections, knew what would sell, and knew what he was doing, and owned a half-share in patent designs that still had three to five years' validity.  

In 1855 they took out a design patent  themselves, for a quite attractive cooking stove, the "Morning Star,"; and Swetland & Little, by then without Warren, bought the design for a box stove, the "Forest Rose," from Vedder and a different partner, Ezra Ripley, in 1856.

Warren must have returned to being a sole trader: in 1858 he was back in contact with Vedder and Sanderson, buying an extraordinary pattern from them for a sort of late development of the columnar heating stove, except that in the case of "The Reflector" the columns had morphed into a circular doughnut.  (This decorated heating drum seems to have been inspired by Fuller, Warren & Morrison of Troy's "Floral Parlor" of c. 1855-1857, a fine example of which survives in the Ford Museum. There were two other Warrens in the Troy stove trade at the time, Charles Warren of Sanders, Wolfe & Warren, and J.H. Warren of F, W & M -- I do not know as yet what the family relationship among the three men may have been, if any.)  The Albany Institute owns a "Reflector," marked as "Warren's Pattent" (sic) and also "Crescent Foundry," so Warren probably had it made by his old partners, and then sold in Troy through Louis Potter, a sheet-iron manufacturer (the sides of the doughnut were made of sheet iron).  [Tammis K. Groft, Cast With Style: Nineteenth Century Cast-Iron Stoves from the Albany Area, 1984, p. 74.]

That's all that the published patent record shows (there might be more in manuscript collections, e.g. the Patent Assignment Registers, but they are in the National Archives and I am not).  New York newspaper archives are no more revealing, and local histories are almost equally disappointing.  Only Silas H. Swetland did not disappear from the public record -- a man from New York State bearing that unusual name figured in one of the causes celebres of the Civil War era, eventually ending up sentenced to a year in Albany penitentiary and a fine of $5,000 [well over a million in 2016 terms] on a charge of fraud (misappropriation of public funds and supplies while a Captain in the U.S. Army Commissary Department).  He soon bounced back -- he must have been a well connected Republican -- to become an agent of the Indian Bureau in 1869, in which capacity he "used a portion of the money placed in his hands for the Indians [the Cherokees of North Carolina] in part payment of his expenses and ... vouchers rendered with his account to the amount of about $2,000 [half a million] were settled by checks on the National Metropolitan Bank [of Washington, DC].  On the presentation of these checks for payment they were protested and the claimants are without their money."  

Not, perhaps, the most reliable business partner to have, though by 1870 he did run a firm in which he could use some of his legitimate experience: as an attorney and solicitor of patents.  One of the founding members of Crescent's Methodist Episcopal congregation in 1852 evidently led a rackety American life for the last decade before his death in the early 1870s, and his brief period as a stove maker in the 1850s may not even have been the most interesting portion of it.    

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